A 115-year-old man lays on his deathbed as the 2016 election results arrive, and revisits his life in this story of love, fatherhood, and the American century from Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler.
Butler offers a fresh spin on the conceit in his immersive if uneven new novel ... moves briskly, paced by boldface headlines and tragic events ... The novel may seem preoccupied with politics, but Butler would argue that canvassing the public square, antennae tuned to rumor as well as fact, is a reporter's raison d'être ... With its robust narrative and staccato cadence, the first half of Late City appeals, but midway the novel stumbles into formulaic plotting and wooden dialogue. God nails his one-liners, but he's still just a device to vary the flow of episodes ... Sam, too, flattens beneath the weight of his halo: he's preternaturally down with Black sharecroppers, feminist causes and the labor movement, atoning for his own privilege. This may be Butler's bid for topicality, but too often he sermonizes rather than telling Sam's story ... If the whole is less than the sum of its parts, Late City is still an engaging read and a commendable quest into the underpinnings of the complicated, often contradictory American people. More crucially, the novel is a poignant meditation on the circle of life, the wonder we all feel as it slips away.
[Butler] is, in short, the type of writer one not only hopes to celebrate but wishes to protect...So there is no joy in reporting that his new novel is an outrageously sentimental misfire ... The ride is wobbly almost as soon as we start pedaling ... Giving God a speaking role in a novel is really leaning into the first part of high-risk, high-yield. And unfortunately, Butler’s God is out of central casting, if the casting director were in grade school ... It’s plain to see that this is dreadful, and one spends the opening scenes praying it will fall away, that God will exit and Butler will simply settle into his character’s reminiscence ... a sad patina covering the heartwarming elements ... more of a Hallmark production. It shows very brief flashes of Butler’s humor and irony, which are in his tool kit, but it’s almost entirely, tragically guileless. There are moments treacly enough to make your knees buckle. The final scene will surely bring some readers to tears, but those it leaves dry-eyed might also be slack-jawed at the mawkish payoff to an already mushy setup earlier in the novel ... One small mercy is that despite appearances by Al Capone and Huey Long, the novel never blooms into a We Didn’t Start the Fire litany or Forrest Gump cameo-fest. Butler is genuinely interested in Sam, Colleen and Ryan — in a human-scale story rather than a full-dress historical stage production. And though a century-plus life could have lent itself to bloat, the book is a speedy 290 pages, and more or less wraps up its timeline with World War II ... The presence of Long, Capone, Trump and Sam’s abusive father implies bigger thoughts about American masculinity, but the book’s political and psychological ideas are not much more sophisticated than its vision of God ... If there’s a silver lining, at least Butler is still taking audacious chances at this stage of his career. And Lord knows there’s an audience for historical tear-jerkers.
With two dozen remarkably imaginative and empathic fiction titles to his credit, Butler brings preternatural attunement to the spiraling of the mind and ardently honed artistry to this exceptionally nuanced, tender, funny, tragic, and utterly transfixing portrait of a man reflecting on more than a century’s worth of horror and wonder.